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Cognitive illusions: Why smart people believe stupid things

In his most recent “Bad Science” column in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, Dr. Ben Goldacre asks the perennial question: Why do smart people believe stupid things?

One answer to that question, he notes, may be found in a recent study from the British Journal of Psychology. It shows how easily people can be manipulated into believing one thing has caused another, even when it hasn’t.

These “illusions of causality,” says Goldacre, are much like visual illusions.

The study involved 108 student participants, who were divided into two groups. They were told about a made-up disease (“Lindsay Syndrome”) and a potential treatment for the disease, Batarim (also, of course, fictional). They were then read the individual “case reports,” one by one, of 100 patients with the syndrome. In the reports, some of the patients had received Batarim and some hadn’t.

In the case reports read to one of the groups of students, 80 patients had received the drug and 20 hadn’t. The reports read to the second group reversed those numbers: 20 of the patients had received the drug and 80 hadn’t.

But in both sets of case reports, 80 percent of the patients had gotten better, regardless of whether or not they had received Batarim.

When asked at the end of the case study readings about the effectiveness of Batarim at treating “Lindsay Syndrome,” however, the two groups had different opinions. Both groups overestimated the benefits of the drug, but particularly those in the first group.

Why? “One possibility,” says Goldacre, “is that the students in the second group saw more patients getting better without the treatment, and so got a better intuitive feel for the natural history of the condition, while [the students] who were told about 80 patients getting Batarim were barraged with data about people who took the drug and got better.”

Adds Goldacre:

“This is just the latest in a whole raft of research showing how we can be manipulated into believing that we have control over chance outcomes, simply by presenting information differently, or giving cues which imply that skill had a role to play. One series of studies has even shown that if you manipulate someone to make them feel powerful (by remembering a situation in which they were powerful, for example) then they imagine themselves to have even greater control over outcomes that are still purely determined by chance, which perhaps goes some way to explaining the hubris of the great and the good.

“We know about optical illusions, and we’re familiar with the ways that our eyes can be misled. It would be nice if we could also be wary of cognitive illusions that affect our reasoning apparatus, but more than that, like the ‘close door’ buttons in a lift — which, it turns out, are often connected to nothing at all — these illusions are modern curios.”

You can read Goldacre’s column here.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/07/2010 - 11:57 am.

    “It shows how easily people can be manipulated into believing one thing has caused another, even when it hasn’t.”

    AKA, “A case study of the effect of the IPCC’s report on ‘Global Warming'”.

  2. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 12/08/2010 - 06:54 am.

    …and the mirror reflects one’s own transparency?

  3. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 12/10/2010 - 08:37 pm.

    Actually, Swiftee, you have it backwards. It is your ignorant position on climate change falls into Goldacre’s “belief in stupid things” category. If you actually were interested in science and evidence, you would recognize the problem of climate change. Sadly, Swiftee, you are very easily manipulated instead.


  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/12/2010 - 09:59 am.

    Actually it’s simply the difference between a well trained and poorly trained intellect. Intellect should be distinguished from IQ. Regardless of ones IQ your intellect still needs to be trained. You can be smart, but if you’re not trained to ask the right questions, recognize logical inconsistencies, and acquire some degree of intellectual integrity, you’re intelligence will lead you astray. The problem highlighted here is a perfect example. The difference between correlation and causation is critical thinking 101.

    We assume that just because someone is educated they must have a well trained intellect but our education fails in this regard. Most people don’t understand that the point of education isn’t to teach people what to think but rather how to think. Memorizing fact and figures does nothing to train an intellects. A friend of mine has a perfect phrase to describe it, he says: “We’ve ended up with a society of degreed but not educated people”.

    Swifts comment is perfect case in point. I’m guessing Mr. Swift has some education beyond high school, and he certainly has at least an average IQ- he’s not stupid. Still he approaches climate change as if the intellectual problem is whether or not to believe in climate change rather analyze the evidence. It’s a high school debate mentality, you choose a position and argue. You find evidence to support your argument. A well trained intellect recognizes that the argument isn’t the objective, winning an argument isn’t the intellectual problem. The intellectual problem is always trying to figure out whether or not you yourself are wrong, not proving someone else is wrong.

    I think we should replace all high school debate courses with basic critical thinking courses. We could do a much better job of training intellects in this country. We should be teach basic logic, scientific method, and rhetoric as a core curriculum. Intellectual integrity requires one puts one’s ego aside. It’s not about what you believe, it’s not even about what you think; it’s about whether or not your thinking clearly.

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